Let's face it: whatever happens in Thursday's debate, cable news will proclaim President Bush the winner. This will reflect the political bias so evident during the party conventions. It will also reflect the undoubted fact that Mr. Bush does a pretty good Clint Eastwood imitation.
But what will the print media do? Let's hope they don't do what they did four years ago.
Interviews with focus groups just after the first 2000 debate showed Al Gore with a slight edge. Post-debate analysis should have widened that edge. After all, during the debate, Mr. Bush told one whopper after another - about his budget plans, about his prescription drug proposal and more. The fact-checking in the next day's papers should have been devastating.
But as Adam Clymer pointed out yesterday on the Op-Ed page of The Times, front-page coverage of the 2000 debates emphasized not what the candidates said but their "body language." After the debate, the lead stories said a lot about Mr. Gore's sighs, but nothing about Mr. Bush's lies. And even the fact-checking pieces "buried inside the newspaper" were, as Mr. Clymer delicately puts it, "constrained by an effort to balance one candidate's big mistakes" - that is, Mr. Bush's lies - "against the other's minor errors."
The result of this emphasis on the candidates' acting skills rather than their substance was that after a few days, Mr. Bush's defeat in the debate had been spun into a victory.
This time, the first debate will be about foreign policy, an area where Mr. Bush ought to be extremely vulnerable. After all, his grandiose promises to rid the world of evildoers have all come to naught.
Exhibit A is, of course, Osama bin Laden, whom Mr. Bush promised to get "dead or alive," then dropped from his speeches after a botched operation at Tora Bora let him get away. And it's not just bin Laden: most analysts believe that Al Qaeda, which might have been crushed if Mr. Bush hadn't diverted resources and attention to the war in Iraq, is as dangerous as ever.
There's also North Korea, which Mr. Bush declared part of the "axis of evil," then ignored when its regime started building nuclear weapons. Recently, when a reporter asked Mr. Bush about reports that North Korea has half a dozen bombs, he simply shrugged.
Most important, of course, is Iraq, an unnecessary war, which - after initial boasts of victory - has turned into an even worse disaster than the war's opponents expected.
The Kerry campaign is making hay over Mr. Bush's famous flight-suit stunt, but for me, Mr. Bush's worst moment came two months later, when he declared: "There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on." When they really did come on, he blinked: U.S. forces - obviously under instructions to hold down casualties at least until November - have ceded much of Iraq to the insurgents.
During the debate, Mr. Bush will try to cover for this dismal record with swagger, and with attacks on his opponent. Will the press play Karl Rove's game by, as Mr. Clymer puts it, confusing political coverage with drama criticism, or will it do its job and check the candidates' facts?
There have been some encouraging signs lately. There was a disturbing interlude in which many news organizations seemed to accept false claims that Iraq had calmed down after the transfer of sovereignty. But now, as the violence escalates, they seem willing to ask hard questions about Mr. Bush's fantasy version of the situation in Iraq. For example, a recent Reuters analysis pointed out that independent sources contradict his assertions about everything "from police training and reconstruction to preparations for January elections."
Mr. Bush is also getting less of a free ride than he used to when he smears his opponent. Last week, after Mr. Bush declared that Mr. Kerry "would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today," The Associated Press pointed out that this "twisted his rival's words" - and then quoted what John Kerry actually said.
Nonetheless, on Thursday night there will be a temptation to revert to drama criticism - to emphasize how the candidates looked and acted, and push analysis of what they said, and whether it was true, to the inside pages. With so much at stake, the public deserves better.
Originally published in The New York Times, 9.28.04